Read Any Good Books Lately?
Are books following the horse and carriage down the road to obsolescence?
Obsolescence is short of extinction. But it’s also short of popular use, which books have been in since not long after Gutenberg invited moveable type, which soon brought printed books to the Western world. Obsolete puts you in museums, where you’re let out for special nostalgic occasions like horse-and-carriage rides around West Annapolis at this weekend’s It’s a Wonderful Life holiday shopping event.
Certainly books are not obsolete in the minds of people who want to write them, which is just about everybody.
Over the centuries, books have been the treasure houses where human knowledge, understanding and wisdom were stored. Before Gutenberg made his printing press, books were treasures in content and form, labor-intensive and beautiful works of art, written and illuminated one at a time.
Even now — perhaps especially now — when everybody can make and publish a book with online specialty houses, books are places people put their treasure.
That truth came home to me as I was preparing this week’s feature story, Winter Reads, a come-to-hand compendium of 2011 books with something to say to, about or from this place we live.
A great deal goes into making a book. The author has to know a whole lot about a subject; immersion, if not obsession, are words that came to mind as I considered the commitment these women and men made. Learning that much takes months, years, even a lifetime.
Writing the book is no short subject, either. These authors had to sit in one place, hands on a keyboard, for long, long stretches, sit long after their butts became sore, fingers numb, eyes crossed and brain curdled.
What’s more, they had to write with a purpose, and not only that but a purpose of their own devising. Conceiving, researching, organizing and then writing a book are marvels of discipline.
Clearly, these authors believed they had a treasure, and they wanted to store it wisely and well, so it could be used but never used up.
They are not, hope as they may, likely to be richly rewarded for their time and effort. “You’re not going to make any money off writing books,” Marlin Fitzwater told me. “You’re doing it for your own pleasure.”
Even more daunting is the thought where this week’s letter began: Is anybody going to read the books these devotees have so painstakingly produced?
Or have reading habits evolved past the solid, print-filled page?
Notice how short I’m writing my paragraphs? That’s because I want you to read them. Centuries ago, when paper was a luxury, unindented paragraphs covered pages, themselves tightly filled margin to margin and sometimes writ over on the diagonal.
Nowadays, new media are teaching our minds to think — and read — in different ways. We like smaller blocks of words, lots of white space and pictures, please. Hence the rise of the graphic novel, amid other new media.
Even if a publisher has artfully designed a book to make its pages friendly to new readers, as has the designer of 1812, only a few of us will ever read those pages. That’s for the same reason books are so valuable to their authors and to civilization: They know it all, or rather so much of a subject that only other devotees will care to know even some of it.
Do we want, anymore, to read as much on a subject as a book contains?
That question has an easy answer: Only if we care about the subject. There are people who will devour all of 1812, just as I’m savoring all of Death in the Polka Dot Shoes. There are people who read books for knowledge, the way I read newspapers, and people like me who blissfully drown in a good story.
If we like the book, it doesn’t matter if it’s printed in real ink or eInk. Death in the Polka Dot Shoes is primarily an eBook. Fitzwater acknowledged ePublishing as the state of the art, after agents and publishers told him that was their read on the future of fiction.
Still, he had a few hardcover copies printed to give away, and the book can be ordered in paper. But my hardcover copy, bound on the cheap, he acknowledges, has to be wrestled to be read. The last book I read, State of Wonder, came to me as an eBook on a Nook, and I enjoyed reading that way. Not much different, it seems, than talking books, which I’ve listened to with great pleasure for three decades.
Give me a good story and I’ll read it; that’s my message, regardless of medium.
I hope this issue brings you many good stories.